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Debbie Reynolds at the Cafe Carlyle last night: Hollywood Royalty shares life, loves, laughs

Kris Kristoffesson once said love is the last thing to go but having seen such greats as Mel Torme, Peggy Lee, Ray Charles, Mel Torme, Leonard Cohen and now 77 year American classic and Hollywood sweetheart Debbie Reynolds in the Autumn of their careers, I believe technique is the last thing to go for a true professional.

At the Cafe Carlyle last night -the last week of a four week run at this classically lovely room, Debbie Reynolds was sometimes out of breath and till the last fifteen minutes, constantly out of tune, but during her first visit to NYC in 25 years she was every inch a star able to use years of entertaining and experience to make up for the loss of some of her other gifts. She could rely on memory and instinct to woo and win a loving audience. Here she is singing Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” And here she is discussing her early career:

Billed as a night of music and comedy, the music were often snippets and the comedy an honest and fun even part biography, part remembrance of Hollywood in the 50s replete with excellent impressions of stars like Katherine Hepburn and Mae West -she has West’s walk down pat. Ms. Reynolds worried a young girl near the stage wouldn’t get the references, explained to the girl she was”Princess Lea’s mother”. Sadly, I had used that explanation on a young friend the other day and was met by a blank stare -we should have both mentioned her role on “Will And Grace” instead. Then while discussing her terrible marriages (one husband stole her money, the other dumped her for Elizabeth Taylor) she said she was the Jennifer Aniston of her time. Well, if Aniston could sing, dance and act up a storm.

Ah yes, the singing. To put it bluntly it was woeful at first and the refusal to sing anything straight through disconcerting: “Good Morning, Good Morning” from the movie that made her a star only gets two bars, a two song medley from her Oscar nominated role in the movie “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” lasts less than a minute. It is all a little herky jerky, not entirely what we had hoped for. But slowly Ms. Reynolds voice warms up and she sounds very good during an overlong Barbra Streisand impression and even better during a lovely tribute to her next door neighbor and drinking buddy Judy Garland.

But Ms. Reynold never had Garland’s career -she didn’t have the pipes and she was born maybe a half decade too late to take full advantage of her vaudeville background. Watching her finest moments of her filmed career, the woman jumps off the screen in a manner per fect for the hyper reality of the Hollywood dream factory whether throwing a cream pie at Gene Kelly in “Rain.” or kicking up her feet on a long bar in “Molly,” she was the personification of the rounded entertainer -what she needed was another decade of MGM movies. Instead she got a more varied career -TV shows and live performances and the sort of tabloid headlining life which would find her the lead on TMZ constantly if it was occuring today.

Last night at the Carlyle the audience, an older , well heeled audience- were there to celebrate being there and that Debbie, somewhat to her and their surprise, was there with her. We applauded and laughed and should have applauded and laughed, she absolutely earned it. Ms. Reynolds is a tough and gritty performer who made it through hard times as a child in Texas to reach the pinnacle of her profession and even today takes her show round the world for 420 nights a year at an age when her peers are retired or dead. She is a testament to a certain, very American cando-ism, The Cafe Carlyle was a perfect place to see this living legend and Ithoroughly enjoyed it. She will be at the Cafe Carlyle thru June 27th.

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